Illinois primary voters went to the polls for the 2018 midterms Tuesday night, where Chicago-style machine politics showed it’s still got what it takes to win.
For Republicans, that means Gov. Bruce Rauner hung on, beating back a far-right challenger who ran ads that even the state GOP rejected. Rauner already has a target on his back since Donald Trump lost the state by 20 points in November. Plus, Rauner has been in charge through multiple financial crises, including higher education and state employee pensions.
For Democrat J.B. Pritzker, the fall is shaping up to be high-stakes. Illinois is the Democratic Party’s best shot to flip a governor’s mansion. Other winners on the Democratic ticket tonight are likely winners in November as well.
Of course, elections aren’t just about any one candidate. By our estimation, here’s who really won, and lost, in the Illinois primary.
The race for Illinois governor in November will be between the rich and the ultrarich.
The Republican nominee for governor, Rauner, is worth about $1 billion (or nearly, at least). The Democratic nominee, J.B. Pritzker, is worth $3.4 billion. Rauner is a former venture capitalist; Pritzker is an entrepreneur and comes from the family that founded Hyatt Hotels.
Both candidates relied on big money for their wins. Rauner’s top contributor is Ken Griffin of the Citadel hedge fund. Pritzker loaned his own campaign nearly $70 million — drowning out Our Revolution-backed state Sen. Daniel Biss. (Fans of Vox may have found his chart- and pun-laden ads that also featured Biss juggling torches appealing, but alas, they never really caught fire.)
That’s where the similarities end between the two moneymen. On policy, Rauner has been fighting tax hikes on the wealthy to plug the state’s fiscal holes, and Pritzker has joined the chorus of Democratic voices supporting them.
But politically, both will deal with a billionaire image in a year about populism.
Rauner narrowly fended off a challenge from the right from state Rep. Jeanne Ives — who attacked the governor on grounds that he was far too liberal to run on the Republican ticket.
Despite Ives’s attempt to stoke the fears of a liberal government gone awry, running an ad that managed to make boogeymen out of teachers unions, black residents, feminists, and trans people all in one video, her campaign was unsuccessful. The ad was even rejected by the state’s Republican Party, with party chair Tim Schneider calling on her to remove the ad, which he said had “no place in Illinois.”
Now that he’s won the primary, Rauner will have to focus on improving his disastrous public image in a state that Trump lost by 20 points in what is shaping up to be a wave Democratic year.
Meanwhile, Pritzker managed to sink his competition largely with his own cash, including Chris Kennedy, who is the son of the late Sen. Robert F. Kennedy and a member of a bona fide American political dynasty.
Pritzker is perhaps not the ideal candidate amid a new Democratic focus on populism, since he was one of those rich people whom the FBI caught seeking to buy a political office from Rod Blagojevich in 2008 and is facing pretty serious questions about an offshore account that the public learned of through a Chicago Tribune investigation.
Ultimately, Democrats might just be testing how powerful the potential wave this fall will be. If Pritzker emerges victorious against Rauner, it will be in no small part because voters are looking for the D — any D — next to the names on the ballot.
Winner: anti-abortion Democrats
There are just three anti-abortion Democrats in the House of Representatives, and tonight, by an extraordinarily narrow margin, that number will remain the same. As Vox’s Anna North explained, Rep. Dan Lipinski, who was first elected in 2005, garnered a spirited but ultimately unsuccessful challenge from political neophyte Marie Newman. At press time, Lipinski looked like he would pull it off, leading by about 1,500 votes with 93 percent of precincts reporting.
The race, despite the candidates’ insistence otherwise, became a proxy for a long-running debate in the Democratic Party about whether it needs to embrace more conservative policy positions to win back white voters. In 2016 as a presidential candidate, Sanders managed to wade into this debate when he called Planned Parenthood part of the “establishment” — and there’s no doubt that many groups have popped up to promote candidates who support abortion rights over those who don’t in recent years, including Emily’s List and NARAL, both of which endorsed Newman. Meanwhile establishment Democratic groups — including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi — backed Lipinski.
Perhaps what is most frustrating for pro–abortion rights advocates in the Third Congressional District is that the voters in the district appear to be a good bit to the left of Lipinski himself. North explained:
Lipinski [...] is a co-chair of the Blue Dogs, a coalition of right-leaning House Democrats. He has voted against the Affordable Care Act, the DREAM Act, and legislation prohibiting job discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. He has spoken at the March for Life and voted to defund Planned Parenthood and received high ratings from the National Right to Life Committee.
But Hillary Clinton, who proudly supported abortion rights, won the district by 15 points in 2016, and it’s gone blue in the past four presidential elections. It elected a Republican only once in the past 25 congressional cycles. Advocates argue that pro–abortion rights candidates can win even in places where it’s not a popular position, never mind a deep-blue place like Illinois.
“We’ve seen proudly pro-choice candidates win up and down ballot in Virginia and even in Alabama,” Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL, told North. “There is a new conversation happening, and it is one about respecting people’s personal paths.”
Nevertheless, incumbency runs strong, and Lipinski’s win proves that. Newman’s strong challenge is a sign, though, that the future of the resistance is female.
Winner: the Illinois political machine
Attorney general races typically don’t rise to the level of national interest, but the one in Illinois should. The seat was opened up by retiring four-term incumbent Attorney General Lisa Madigan, the state’s first female attorney general, who is widely rumored to have other ambitions, though she may also have wanted to avoid questions about her powerful father, Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan.
The elder Madigan, who has held the post for two decades, became a target in the AG race amid accusations of sexual misconduct that took down two of his high-level political aides. Attorney general candidate Scott Drury was perhaps the most vocal of Madigan’s critics, calling for a “Mueller-style investigation” into the party boss’s organization. Drury overcame a judge kicking him off the ballot, which the candidate claimed was retribution for his position as the only Democrat not to vote for Madigan for another term as House speaker (Drury voted “present”).
Whether Madigan’s pick for his daughter’s successor emerged on the top of the pile of eight Democratic candidates vying for the attorney general position was a test of whether the political machine still maintained its power. Madigan and Cook County Democratic Party Chair Joe Berrios backed state Sen. Kwame Raoul — and at press time, it seemed like he was going to win.
Former Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn came in a close second, and seemed to be mainly sliding by on his name recognition alone. He said as much in a candidate group meeting with the Sun-Times in January. Quinn, remember, lost to Rauner in 2014 — when it was Quinn who held the title of least popular governor in America.
Raoul’s victory means that while it’s certainly popular to attack the Illinois political machine, it’s much better to secure its backing.
Winner: Luis Gutierrez’s legacy
Rep. Luis Gutierrez, a 12-term Congress member, announced his retirement last year. Gutierrez, who is Latino, became one of the leading voices in Congress on immigrant rights. A centerpiece of his legacy has been working to help those eligible for citizenship — and he has aided more than 50,000 people in navigating the process.
Gutierrez will be succeeded by another Latino in the heavily Hispanic Fourth Congressional District. Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia was backed by both Gutierrez and progressive icon Sen. Bernie Sanders. In a recent interview, Garcia talked about how immigrant rights is personal for him. “There are over 230,000 foreign-born individuals in the Fourth District. People like myself,” he said. “It’s quite numerous when you factor in how many families are mixed status like my family: undocumented folks, legal permanent residents, citizens.”
Gutierrez entered Congress in the 1990s, around the same time Reagan-era amnesty kicked in for many members of his district, so the irony is many of the Latino voters casting ballots in the Illinois primary election today are doing so thanks to the Congress member’s work.
His work amplifying the stories of the young undocumented immigrants who grew up in America, known as DREAMers, brought the issue to the forefront of the immigration debate. Gutierrez worked with President Obama to established the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program after the DREAM Act failed in 2010.
Politico ran a piece calling Gutierrez’s retirement timing “suspicious,” saying Gutierrez managed to “upend the city’s congressional delegation, remake the 2019 mayoral race and set off a domino effect on local offices” with his retirement. Though he’s leaving Congress, Gutierrez says he’ll continue with his mission of helping progressive Latinos exercise their political power.
But it may be Donald Trump who finally broke Gutierrez. During the last round of negotiations over DACA, after which he’d already announced his retirement, Gutierrez told Vox’s Ella Nilsen, “I’ll take a bucket, take bricks, and I’ll start building it myself. We will dirty our hands, in order for the DREAMers to have a clean future in America. Then why haven’t we settled this?” It still hasn’t been settled.
DACA recipients’ fate is still tied up in Congress, in the courts, and in the administration, but the Democratic Party has come out strongly on the side of advocating for immigrant rights. This is, as Vox’s Dara Lind explained, part of a long-term trend in the Democratic Party:
With labor unions flipping to support unauthorized immigrants, there were no longer institutional interests within the Democratic Party that were interested in taking a more hawkish immigration line. Democrats continued to worry about turning off working-class white voters (the voters who were no longer being represented by unions in the workplace, and who might be more culturally conservative as well) by going too far on immigration. But without any institution promising to turn them out if Democrats did cater to those views, that concern was increasingly abstract.
It’s not often that a real live Nazi runs for office in America. Arthur Jones, a Holocaust denier, ran unopposed in the Republican primary for Illinois’s Third Congressional District.
The Anti-Defamation League, whose mission includes fighting anti-Semitism, said of Jones’s candidacy:
While few believe Jones has any chance of winning the 3rd, where voters have elected a Democrat in 24 of the last 25 Congressional races, as a major-party candidate for a statewide seat, Jones will have a significant platform for his hateful views. The candidate’s website pairs “America First” language with outright Holocaust denial, including a “Holocaust Racket” diatribe that blames “Organized World Jewry” for perpetrating “the biggest, blackest lie in history.” Jones has called the Holocaust “nothing more than an international extortion racket by the Jews.”
Responding to Jones’s candidacy, Tim Schneider, chairman of the Illinois Republican Party, issued the following statement: “The Illinois Republican Party and our country have no place for Nazis like Arthur Jones. We strongly oppose his racist views and his candidacy for any public office, including the 3rd Congressional District.”
There was even a Chicago Tribune editorial urging Republicans not to “accidentally” vote for Jones. “This is not a good look for the Illinois Republican Party,” the editorial said.
But without a write-in candidate to coalesce around, enough uninformed — or perhaps outright racist — voters ticked the box for Jones to give him the nomination. Illinois Republicans who think Jones isn’t a good look might take comfort in the fact that while he may have secured a place on the ballot this November, he’s almost certain to lose given how blue the district is.
Loser: the Republican Governors Association
Republicans control 33 governors’ mansions. In a year that is shaping up to be a Democratic wave, it’s clear that their gubernatorial count will likely only go down. Illinois Democrats, despite nominating a billionaire with offshore accounts who has ties to the corrupt political machine, are looking to win big this November.
“This is a moment that’s a once-in-a-50-year opportunity, and it calls for maximum effort,” Democratic Governors Association Chair Jay Inslee, governor of Washington state, said in an interview with Vox.
Rauner is not quite the least popular governor running for reelection in the country — that title goes to Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin. But Illinois is much more primed to favor the Democrats than Oklahoma.
If Democrats can’t manage to pull off a win in November against Rauner, their prospects are likely dim everywhere else.